Innovation *quack*

Sarah and Duck

I came across this today, in an oddly fortuitous set of circumstances – Sarah & Duck is one of Hannah’s (ok fine, and mine) favourite shows and I was looking up pictures for her. One happened to come from this article:

Say what you like about children’s TV allegories, the guy makes some excellent points. And given higher education is often rather like an empty packet of sweets and a ball that won’t bounce, fairly relevant.

If you don’t have kids and/or a penchant for cartoons and have never seen it, hit up iView for some Friday afternoon viewing.

It’s just a jump to the left

So. Workplace change. Super fun happy time. I shouldn’t complain too much, because I’m in the fortunate position of having a continuing appointment so I will more than likely come out the other end still having a job. And yet. The new org chart removes all but one academic positions, so it’s essentially guaranteed that I will lose my academic position and be reassigned as professional staff.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’ve been an academic for five and a half years now. I never planned to be an academic, just kind of fell into it. Despite this, I seemed to be rather suited to it. I made a fairly decent name for myself as an unconventional scholar. And without really meaning to it’s become fairly tied to me as an identity. When people ask what I do I say I’m an academic. It’s no secret that I’ve been ragingly cynical about many aspects of academia and have criticised the sector heavily along the way, but despite that it was still my niche. A far better fit for me than the classroom ever was. And I’m not sure how I feel about leaving that behind not by choice.

Ostensibly, it’s not a huge shift to step into learning design on a professional classification. I’ll get paid more, for one (I still think someone should do a ‘Things that pay more than Academic A” tumblr). The work will probably be similar, given how far my role has morphed away from academic development in the last year or so. I’ll have the same colleagues. I’ll lose the dead end career path associated with academics in central non-teaching roles. And yet. And yet.

I got an email from Academia Obscura the other day, noting that I was on some list or another as a ‘favourite academic tweeter’. This site still gets hits daily from being listed on The Thesis Whisperer as “more like us”. I have half a PhD done (albeit once again on suspension through not winning at work/life balance). The academia category on my blog is fairly extensive. It’s a lot of stuff to turn around and mark as no longer relevant. I think more than anything the thought of no longer having an institution to poke from the inside bothers me. Cowboy learning designer seems like a different genre. Not that I’ve done all that much poking of late but the principle is still there.

So, I don’t know. While no new positions have been allocated yet it’s certain I won’t have an academic one so I suppose this counts as my obligatory ‘leaving academia’ post, without the catharsis that would have come with doing it of my own accord and saying ‘sayonara suckers’. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of things I won’t miss. But, being the rogue academic isn’t one of them. I’ll miss that title. Onwards, though, I suppose, and I will see you all in another dimension, with voyeuristic intention (do I get bonus points for both beginning and ending with a painful musical reference?).


Re: elephants

In my post yesterday I referred to a myriad of elephants in the room regarding the teaching of academic integrity, which I thought I’d unpack here a bit. Many of them are symptoms of sector-wide problems and tie in with other significant issues like casualisation. I’m certainly not saying anything new but I still think it’s worth discussing.

1. Expectation vs reality

When teaching academic integrity people expect you to refer to the policy and the consequences of transgressions. If you do plagiarism, disciplinary action will happen. It sounds good in theory, but realities are very different. Let’s talk about the casual lecturer who isn’t paid for administrivia and red tape. Let’s talk about the lecturer who’s so time poor it’s more trouble than it’s worth to follow up investigations. Let’s talk about the lecturer who is pressured to pass full-fee paying students and turn a blind eye to plagiarism. Let’s talk about all the systematic issues that mean the likelihood of consequences eventuating for plagiarism and cheating is not nearly so high as everyone would like to believe.

2. Assessment

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Essays are the #1 easiest type of assessment to plagiarise and cheat on. Ghostwriters are everywhere and ridiculously easy to engage. Quizzes and exams are similarly easy to cheat (if you’re not convinced, search youtube for ‘how to cheat on an exam or quiz’). Until we have a system that supports the use of more authentic assessment types, this is still going to be an issue. And using more sophisticated and restrictive technologies to try and catch them or lock them down is not the solution, students who have access to a massive online hive mind will always be one step ahead.

3. Do as I say, not as I do

All academics adhere to the principles of academic integrity without question, right? Sure, we might know how to cite. But how many of us are attributing images we use in our online courses, or seeking permission for those bound by copyright? If it’s on Google it’s free to use, right? There are some significant holes in our understanding of things, particularly regarding the use of digital media.

4. Biting the hand that feeds you

It’s a hard reality that many universities are extremely reliant on full-fee-paying international students. And any significant disciplinary action runs the risk of jeopardising that. In some instances the customer really is always right.

5. Representation vs stereotyping

A particularly fraught issue when using actors is – do you cast characters that international students can identify with, or do you shy away from that lest you be seen as typecasting?

6. Siloing

Finally, the complex issue of life management. It’s easy to think academic integrity exists in a silo, just learn this and don’t do the naughty things and it will all be fine. But the reality is that many students are managing complex issues, some of which take priority over studies and over behaving with integrity. For some the shame of failing pulls far stronger than any potential risk of being caught.


So there you have it. None of these elephants can be addressed, all of them will impact the ability for any kind of strategy around academic integrity to have the level of impact we’d like. But until we see significant changes in the system, all we can do is fix the things we can. Godspeed, Brenda and Damo, godspeed.

Re: academic integrity

One of the projects I’ve been working on of late is redesigning our whole approach to academic integrity. Now, because we can’t just direct students to (although I dearly would love to substitute that for most policies), it’s been a fairly substantial project. How do you teach 20,000-odd students academic integrity with any sort of impact? It’s fairly safe to say that current practices are not particularly effective. In general it seems to be something that’s approached from a compliance training perspective – read this policy, take this quiz.

It’s interesting to notice how educational research dovetails into parenting. I’d read Alfie Kohn years ago as an educator, but he has also done some significant work on parenting, particularly gentle parenting and the ineffectiveness of punitive discipline and punishment. And while the concept of discipline is usually applied to younger children, it makes sense to extrapolate to adults and assume that trying to teach by saying ‘here are all the ways you will be punished if you don’t learn this and do something wrong, now prove that you remember them’ is probably not all that effective a strategy.

What’s the alternative? The key problem is – how do we convince people that this matters? If someone looks at a list of punishments and balances that against the likelihood of being caught, the perceived difficulty of actually learning the skills involved and the potential ramifications of failing, one can understand why one might be tempted by the ease of procuring ghostwritten work (which is astonishingly easy, if you’ve ever looked) etc. What’s missing is making that choice matter to the student. What’s in it for them? How does acting with integrity benefit them? Reputation is a currency people understand.

People also like stories. Stories and games. Stories invest people emotionally. Games give safe spaces for skill development with immediate feedback. Compliance training doesn’t do any of this. For academic integrity training to have impact, students need to care about the benefits to them and to others, to understand how cause and effect works (not just cause and punishment) and be able to develop skills without fear of ramifications.

Which leads us to the Academic Integrity Kit. I’m not sure where Kit came from but it’s stuck. What it is, is a digital storytelling narrative crossed with a FPS (first person shooter, for non-gaming types) and a choose your own adventure book. Rather than the standard approach to scenarios and storytelling where it’s observed at a third-person remove, we shot all the footage either over the shoulder of a playable character or as a screencast so the narrative is brought into the first person. Each character is a messy, real-life trope with complex competing priorities, rather than a black/white good/bad positioning removed from any context. Students make decisions on behalf of their character and see immediate consequences of these decisions, both in terms of policy and of the effect on their reputation and future career prospects. One key point that we’re trying to make is that it’s not just academic integrity, it’s integrity in general and the principles apply in all areas of life – like the mother in law who posts photos of your kids to Facebook without asking. And it’s all held under the umbrella of the excellent dad-joke tag line our graphic designer Ivan came up with – ‘it’s your CV, not ctrl-C ctrl-V’.

It’s not a panacea. The dialogue is contrived as we weren’t allowed swearing or slang. Artistic liberties were liberally taken in order to fit 9 designated areas to cover into a designated ‘half hour or less’ module with at least a semi-believable storyline. We had no budget to speak of so acting quality is not great in places (largely due to me having to play one of the characters – those who know me will know how ridiculous that concept is). There are an astronomical number of elephants in the room (which I’ll cover in a different post). It’s built in Captivate and auth-walled in Moodle which frustrates the open-or-die side of me. But – it’s a better way of thinking about academic integrity, and hopefully a better way of doing. It may or may not have more impact, since it’s yet to be tested, but it’s a strong entry into the ‘we really need to be doing this better’ conversation around the teaching of academic integrity.

While you won’t be able to access the full kit, you can take a look at the mockup splash page that introduces the module and a couple of screenshots, so here you go. I’ve also submitted a poster to Ascilite on this so if you’re lucky you can come chat to me about it IRL too.

Splash page

Project team is myself, Steve Carruthers who I think only exists online in his photographer form, Iain Mackay and Ivan Thornton who I am not sure exists online at all.

Badge literacy: a field guide

Following on in my thinking about badges, Colin’s comment re: badge literacy on my last post deserves some exploration. Little graphics that you stick on some website somewhere are a hard sell to a university, because:

1. Boy Scouts. The actual concept is identical and the niche for this type of credential is identical but the association of nine year olds in funny hats sewing patches on their shirts is not doing us any favours.

2. Gamification. The idea that you can bribe students to do things with cutesy digital carrots is also not doing us any favours.

3. Related: academics are generally allergic to anything that is not dripping with rigour.

4. The buzzword bingo keynoter set who like to simultaneously hype and fearmonger badges under the guise of ‘future’.

5. Anything that involves new technology generally sounds bad, because generally universities have a history of implementing new technology badly.

In short, badges suffer more than their fair share of bad press. And as such, the idea that “badges have the potential to support by surfacing the less-obvious learning that is often hidden due to the focus on grades and transcripts” sounds fairly implausible.

So how do we sell it? In my completely anecdotal experience, people generally fall into three camps regarding badges – the Boy Scout set, the fence sitter set and the gamification set; dismissal, ambivalence or poor fit for use. Which tends to be a recursive loop of doom; the more the Boy Scout set see flippant, gamified use of badges, the more they are dismissed as trivial and gimmicky and the more ambivalent the fence sitters become.

All of these groups have somewhat disparate needs in regards to raising badge literacy; here is my quick and dirty field guide.

Badge literacy for Boy Scouters

Clearly identified use cases

Clear identification of the niche that badges fill and the current problems exist that badge implementation may help solve

Badge graphics that look ‘serious’

A badge that looks cutesy or gimmicky or uses poor graphic design will only damage perception of badges further

Scholarly evidence

Evidence to support the notion that badges and microcredentialling are not passing fads and executive whimsy. Actual policy a bonus.

Concrete examples (either theoretical or best practice from other institutions)

Demonstration of the process in practice, ideally from someone who has already done it because people like the word ‘leading’ in theory but in practice nobody wants to be the first institution to do crazy things.

Badge literacy for Gamifiers

Clearly identified use cases

Clear identification of the niche that badges fill and the current problems exist that badge implementation may help solve, as separate from superficial learner engagement and motivation

Emphasis on ‘big picture’ (professional portfolio usage, context, durability etc)

Awareness of where badges sit as part of an individual’s overall portfolio and knowledge of the intended audiences to put individual badges in context

Reputational awareness

Awareness of the implications of public-facing badges and how media and research coverage of badge use will reflect on them and their institution

Alternate strategies for motivating learners

Since an already-identified need for learner motivation exists, this group needs alternate strategies to address this need that do not require the use of badges

Badge literacy for Fence Sitters

Clearly identified use cases

Clear identification of the niche that badges fill and the current problems exist that badge implementation may help solve

Assurance of technical stability and ease of use

People get very tired very quickly of yet another system that’s going to be hard to use, break a lot, and probably be superseded in a couple of years.

Compelling arguments

Mostly a combination of items from the previous two groups. Shiny powerpoints optional.

Obviously this is by no means exhaustive, but it’s something to chew on while sitting in red tape purgatory.

Implementing badges 1: adventures in drop shadows

I haven’t been particularly forthcoming about what I’ve been working on in the last year or so, because reasons. But since 2015 is the self-declared year of damn the man, here we are. What I’ve been working on recently is a proposal for the implementation of OpenBadges. Since Moodle now comes with a nice but rather full of implications little button to turn badges on, and since with great power comes great responsibility etc etc, it seems like somebody should be doing something about it. Turns out for here that that person is me.

Since in the recent past we have been burned by merrily jumping on buzzword bandwagons without a whole lot of consideration, badge implementation needed a bit of thought behind it. And while I’m generally a fan of the cowboy forgiveness not permission approach on an individual level, I tend to agree with the need to not go off half-cocked institutionally. And so, documentation. The proposal itself is fairly dry and written for a lay audience, but the key part of it of interest here is the development of a badge taxonomy.

Why a taxonomy, you say? Because if left to their own devices, people tend to jump straight to gamification and start using badges to entice students to participate in discussion forums. Which I have many feels about. Badges really have their niche in making the stuff that’s not visible, visible, not in adding bribery layers under the guise of gamifying. I’ve nutted this out a few times before, but TL;DR gamification bad, microcredentialling good. A taxonomy gives those who are none the wiser and those who read the gamification marketing guff and the ‘watch out universities badges will kill you’ hype something to work with to develop their own understanding of what badges can be and how they might work in their own context.

Since every good taxonomy must have an Office-style crime against visual design (and everyone needs a nice printable *thing* for their wall and it’s nicer to look at than the written taxonomy table), the following is what I’ve come up with.

OpenBadge taxonomy

A veritable cornucopia of drop shadows and gradients, and a very rough translation of Halavais’ genealogy of badges into usable higher education terms. The colour codes are a nod to @catspyjamasnz’s Moodle tool guide (getting rather vintage these days)  ‘good thing to do, not great thing to do unless you design it well, seriously don’t do that’ system. The guiding principle was essentially ‘what’s going to be relevant in a portfolio (backpack) for future employers etc?’. Nobody is going to care that you wrote 6 discussion forum posts in a literature unit 5 years ago – but people will care that you have demonstrated effective communication skills.

Staff use is only one side of the story. A significant issue with badges is one of their largest target demographics is students, who often to subscribe to the marketing hype and think of them as gimmicky, non-serious things more akin to the stickers kids get for good work (do they still get stickers? Is that still a thing?). How does one go about changing this perception? Student-facing taxonomy? Bludgeon? Cross our fingers and hope? I’ve learned from past projects that students don’t respond well to a service created for a need they don’t realise exists. Perhaps even harder to convince are the professional learning set, academics who decry anything perceived to lack rigour. Currently filed in the ‘deal with it later’ basket, given people want to start using badges now and not after the wicked problems have been solved.

Stay tuned for further adventures once we actually press the button and start using badges…